Dedicated to all the people who have enjoyed my cooking and who have listened to me with interest, no matter how insincerely, as I speak of my ideas as though they were true and would change the listener’s life. Whether the information I was sharing was life changing, it must be admitted that I was passionate about it.
A book is comprised of words strung together to try to convey information or a story. It is my hope that this will be useful for both purposes.
I do have a story to tell. This isn’t exactly an autobiography, as that would be placing emphasis on many things that were unimportant. Precisely why this needs to be a cookbook. The different regions I’ve lived in and the people who have influenced my life, particularly the food I’ve learned to cook, thus far, can explain my life. How I’ve ended up in these places with these people is miraculous to me. I am blessed beyond belief.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS: 1946 TO 2007
Comfort food, mid-western style, is something I’ve never been able to get enough of. It’s fair to say that most all of the country cuisine I grew up with is hot…as in stove hot. I’m racking my brain to think of something cold that I would consider country comfort food. So, I guess, if there is such a thing, it doesn’t belong in this cookbook.
The list is pretty short of the items from that region that make me feel comforted. Let’s see, topping the list is mashed potatoes and gravy. Add to that some fried chicken, Foxie’s meatloaf, roast beef, fresh caught catfish fried up Grayville or Shawneetown style, fresh garden sliced tomatoes (room temperature, not cold), fresh garden green beans steamed and cooked ever so slightly in bacon grease with a little bitty bit of onion, and garden fresh sweet corn on the cob or not. Add to that some sweet tea and homemade white bread with fresh-churned creamy butter and I’m in “foodie” heaven.
“I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.” – Erma Brombeck
Add to that, depending on the season, a fresh fruit pie, pumpkin pie, or the one that makes my mouth water just thinking about it…Chess Pie. “Wylie” always made a fresh Lemon Meringue, Coconut Cream, Banana Cream or Chocolate Cream pie everyday. In the afternoon after “dinner” in the summer, she would make the pie for the meals for that evening and lunch the next day. We would take a blanket out to sit under the tree and sample the pie for that day right out of the oven. I think I may have been known to eat it for breakfast if I spent the night. Grandpa Wylie probably got the rest. Somehow it was always gone by the next afternoon when it was time to make another one.
Even though I left my hometown, Fairfield, Illinois, in 1964, I returned often over the years. Until the 1980’s my grandparents and Great Aunt Bess were still living in the region. Aunt Bess lived to be 104. She still planted and worked a huge vegetable garden, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and served up her homemade pickles. We enjoy our memories of those visits and have cherished pictures along with the recipes that are in this book.
I was fortunate that my mother was an amazing cook. My father said that after they were married he gained 20 pounds because Mother creamed all the vegetables. She wanted them to taste good. I tried the same thing on my children but it didn’t work on the peas or lima beans. Mother was a high school Home Economics teacher. She was passionate about having well-balanced nutritious meals. Your place setting would always include a salad plate, a bread and butter plate, and a water glass, in addition to your dinner plate.
The salad was rarely elaborate. It might have a fresh lettuce leaf with some cottage cheese and a slice of pineapple topped with a maraschino cherry. Usually, it had fruit of some kind, cheese and lettuce. Her motivation to do all of this work and have tons of dishes was that we would have all the food groups represented. Good idea!
Desserts were always served. Usually, it was something simple such as a glass of sherbet on a small plate with a cookie. “A little something sweet just to cleanse the palate,” she would say.
Our visits to Fairfield always included a roast beef dinner at home to welcome us, a steak or catfish dinner at the Elks Club and various outings to the local cafes in nearby towns, usually for the noon meal. Probably our favorite was The Red Geranium in New Harmony, Indiana. Many of my parents’ friends entertained us there and it was the favorite restaurant for birthdays and holidays after Mother decided not to cook large meals anymore.
I always have red geraniums in clay pots on my porch to remind me of the colonial atmosphere, the deep soul-stirring smells coming from the kitchen, the communion with family and dear friends at the Red Geranium.
“If you can read you can cook.” Foxie
Something extraordinary happened to me in 1965. My Stephens College roommate, Nancy, and I went to summer school in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. The next school year I had a Spanish teacher at Stephens tell me, after I expressed to her my discontent with my present surroundings, that “once the dust of Mexico lands upon your heart you will not find peace in any other land.” I guess that explains it.
After graduating from Stephens College in 1966 I enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The story I gave my parents was that I could major in Latin American Studies, learn to speak Spanish and have an illustrious career as a foreign diplomat. They fell for it, though reluctantly. I think they knew I would never be back to my hometown to live.
The reason I chose Tucson was that it was close to Mexico. It was that much closer to my most recent food craving at that time…quesadillas at Tacos Especiales in Guadalajara. I thought that if I didn’t like school it wasn’t very far to just jump over the border.
Also, remembering those times, I’m sure it was the #1 party school in the country. Of course, I was busy studying and didn’t have time to party.
In 1967, I married an exciting Mexican guitar player, comedian, and entertainer. My parents were on prescription tranquilizers at the wedding but they did come and were nice to everyone. We had three outstanding, talented and good-looking children.
Being an only child, the Mexican culture with the beautiful children and large gracious families was irresistible to me. I embraced the culture, the music, the language, the religion, and the food.
There were almost endless events celebrating one thing or another, which required lots of eating, dancing, singing, and partying. Such a complete change from my Southern Illinois roots.
The marriage ended (he was too exciting) and I left Tucson. I physically left but kept the memories, and the recipes, close to my heart.
I had learned how to cook many of the traditional dishes by helping out in the kitchen on days when everyone gathered. My sisters-in-law (six of them) were great cooks and industrious wives and mothers. I am indebted to them for taking me in and teaching me how to be a wife and mother in their culture.
The recipes you will find here are not all of them. The green corn and red tamale making is better left to the nieces. With a phone call I can order the best tamales ever made. They come frozen, already cooked, and only have to be steamed. When that hunger pang strikes between meals, it is often hard to resist grabbing one from the freezer and popping it into the microwave. It just takes one minute, on each side, on high power, to be able to enjoy the most delectable tamale ever created.
Some Mexican recipes I will share are for Aunt Wicha’s Sour Cream Chicken Enchiladas, Albondigas, the family salsa, beef tacos cooked the right way (St. John’s Tacos as they are known in the White Mountains of Arizona), rolled chicken tacos, calabacitas, guacamole, rice, beans, red chile, and green chile.
“Tacos are the only food shaped like a smile.” –Earl Hickey
I do not know how to make tortillas, corn or flour. However, I can assure you that I know how and where to buy them and how to eat them in many different ways. The best corn tortillas are the ones with only three ingredients, corn, water and lime. They are usually found on the bottom self of a tortilla display in the grocery store. They are the least expensive and they freeze well. Since they are fresh with no preservatives (words you can’t pronounce) you must inspect the package (from the outside, of course) for “blue spots” (mold) before purchasing them.
GREER AZ: 1986-PRESENT
All I learned about cooking while living in Greer was that I could combine all of the Southern Illinois comfort food recipes, the Mexican comfort food recipes and throw in a little mountain cooking to make just about anybody happy any time.
Some new things I learned, though most everyone in the mountains cooks them better, are biscuits and gravy, posse stew, some hearty soups, beef chili, and how to fry a trout.
Peter says I am the “best fish cooker” around. That is due to our friend, Jerry, who has a seafood home delivery service called Land and Sea. He doesn't just sell fish (think Creme Brule Cheesecake). Every time he drops off some fish I ask, “How do you cook that?” He knows if he gives me the instructions and I am successful we will keep ordering fish. It works.
“If someone claims a recipe as their own, they’ve tried it and it was good!”~ Unknown
I will make every attempt to give credit to those whose recipes are in this cookbook. I have never invented a recipe on my own. However, usually when I’m making something, I look up different recipes in my many different cookbooks, on the web and glean some idea from each one, combining them.
I’ve discovered that many great cooks, when complimented, will offer to give you their recipes. There is only one problem. They leave out their secret. Shame on them.
All of my secrets are contained herein.